This is a copy of an e-mail sent out to friends and family after a brief trip through Czech Republic and Germany in July 2006.
I’ve just returned from Czech Republic and Germany which was a nice little holiday from my holiday. I needed to clear out on one last jaunt before I am forced to take life seriously over here (whether that will ever happen remains in doubt) so off I went on the Sunday before last and flew into a town called Brno, about two hundred clicks southeast of Prague. The name is pronounced not entirely unlike “Bruno”, which had me chuckling to myself repeatedly. Travelling alone can be dangerous, I warn you…
Yeah, got into Bruno and took a train up to Prague, keen to feast on Kafka and Mucha and quench my thirst with some fine local pilsners, only, I arrived at around eleven in the evening and my first stop was therefore the twenty-four seven train station sausage joint. After recently travelling through the Balkans, I have come to conclude that they ought to rename mitteleuropa “the Sausage Lands”, which has a certain ring to it. There really is nothing finer than the sight of twenty kranskeh boiling away in front of you, or the lightly sizzling bratwurst, or the dusky aromas of the long, red, spicy… okay… yep, sure.
Basically Prague is beautiful and the six hundred and fifty-two odd people who had told me so previously were not lying in the slightest. It has been scrubbed down, spruced up, buffed and polished, given a few licks of paint, de-loused and thoroughly velvet revolutionised. It has also become considerably more expensive than it once was, or than anything else in Czech Republic for that matter, the upshot of which is that it is increasingly geared towards tourism – now making up sixty percent of the city’s total income. But, then again, it does look very nice, so why shouldn’t they make a few bucks off us into the bargain?
I spent the next three days wandering about town in dry, 32 degree sunshine, shooting around a thousand photos, talking to myself, singing along to my iPod and basically looking like a typical dickhead tourist who was totally full of himself. Then, to really rub it in, I went and sat right under a rather imposing saint on the smashingly grand Charles Bridge and got slowly drunk smoking cigarettes and sniping people with my “perving lens”. I enjoyed this so much – drinking through the late afternoon until dark (c.2200) – that I did precisely the same thing the following evening. After two nights of this on the trot I’d already told myself all my best anecdotes, so I slunk back to my hostel room feeling the weight of a diet of cabbage, beer, dumplings, sausages and smoked pork, and made the decision to leave town first thing Wednesday morning.
What followed was a day of mixed pleasures and an evening of harrowing tribulation. I took a train through the Sudetenland via the town of Bad Schandau (sounds like a westy haircut, methinks) and on into Germany where I disembarked at Dresden. Rejoicing at still being in The Sausagelands, I immediately downed a bratwurst and walked on into town to see what remained.
Dresden had had the double fortune of being almost entirely destroyed during the Second World War and then being occupied by the Russians. The town was hit by unprecedentedly heavy incendiary bombing raids on February 13, 1945 which led to a horrific firestorm that not only burned most of the city down, but blasted, roasted and suffocated to death possibly as many as 150,000 people.
No one knows how many people were in Dresden at the time, but the population had swollen to roughly double its then 650,000, owing to the number of German refugees fleeing the advance of the Red Army. To quote Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five: “You guys burnt the place down, turned it into a single column of flame. More people died there in the firestorm, in that one big flame, than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.”
What I liked about Dresden was that contrary to the usual soulless, brutalist architecture of socialist realist idealism, Dresden looked rather more like the shining visions of the future dreamed up by the less addled Soviet social architects. Indeed, the stretch from the train station leading to the old town would not look out of place in Tarkovsky’s Solaris. I walked about for a few hours before doing as the locals did, which was to recline with my feet in a public fountain. One sausage later and I was off to take the train to Leipzig.
It was here that the trouble began. I was, admittedly, somewhat culpable since I was travelling without a guide book, and though I almost always do have a guide book, it’s never been too difficult to find a hotel without one. I figured, sure, I’ll find a place, no worries. I took the time to admire the vast train station whilst looking for a tourist information office, a search that ultimately proved fruitless. I then found a couple of guys on the street welcoming people to Leipzig and thought, hello, here’s a map. All good. I asked them if there was a hostel in town, but it was an uphill battle – ein bischen Deutsch meets kein Englisch… so I figured I’d wing it.
I walked into town, la did da, and it seemed nice enough – typical central European city, nothing too spectacular, some grimy old churches, trams, prefab concrete tower blocks, an occasional loggia, soccer madness in the air, beautiful women on bicycles and sausages cooking on stalls, only, there was something missing. Hotels.
It was six in the evening when I arrived and by about six forty I had given up and was asking a French girl and a fruity man from Saxony if they knew where I might find a room. They gave me another map and sent me off south to a part of town which they assured me was practically thronging with cheap hotels and pensions. So, I set off confidently, figuring I’d be showered and having a beer in about half an hour. Forty minutes later, I reached the end of this street having gone past a grand total of two pensions, both of which had no one at reception and signs informing me that there would not be anyone at reception again until tomorrow. This sort of thing happens the day after Germany loses in the world cup, I guess.
I started to branch out into the side streets where I found a three star hotel which would, knocking off breakfast, cost a mere fifty euros. It felt rather like being shot in the wallet, so I politely declined and walked all the way back into town, figuring that since in every other city in Europe there are several homely dives right next to the train station, I’d find one there.
Forty minutes later, I discovered otherwise. Now I was seriously pissed off. It was eight and I was exhausted and sweating like a you know what (Not a pig, incidentally, as they don’t really have sweat glands). I realised what a fool I had been not to cop the hit and pay the fifty, so I slogged it on down that road again, looking for an autobank on the way. There didn’t seem to be any, but I recalled seeing one close to the hotel, so I thought it would not be a problem. When I reached it, I discovered that it did not accept foreign bank cards at all. I walked around for fifteen minutes trying to find another one, before giving up and going to the hotel in the hope that I could pay after I’d been shown to my room, left my passport or other form of security and at least had a shower and change of clothes before going all the goddamned way back into town.
I presented this idea to the man with the comedy accent behind the counter, but despite his amazing affability and quite incredible facial expressions, it was not an option. They did want to help me, however, and said they would accept British pounds. From this there proceeded an almost unfathomably idiotic passage wherein they tried to get the internet to work to find a currency converter, which took five minutes – then, having worked out the rate, everyone, including myself, was too shit at maths to work out how to do the conversion.
In the end, he happily presented me with the exchange rate of seventy-two pounds nineteen, for fifty euros, which struck me as rather odd considering the Pound is worth a good deal more than the Euro. “Okay, okay,” I said, grimacing with astonishment that I had not as yet fallen over and wept, “I’ll go to the bank.” So, I walked back into town and all the way back – this time, however, in record time (around fifty minutes round trip).
Being ten o’clock and dying of dehydration, sausage-starvation and a general lack of stimulants, I did not dally in my hard-won shower, but rather was back out the door in five minutes time and over the road watching the last ten minutes of the France v. Portugal game for which I had hoped to be half-drunk at kick off.
I downed several beers, sucked in a few fags, and then marched back into town to see what the scene was like. There I encountered the tail end of a free concert in a public square wherein some local band were banging out covers such as “I was made for loving you.” I put on a brave face and saw it out, then walked back to my local bar. By this time it was after midnight, but I was determined to have a good time since I was paying so much to be here. I sat at the bar with no intention of going anywhere for a few more hours.
It was at this point that I was approached by an elderly gentleman, if sprightly, originally from New York, who had officially changed his name to One Zero Six Nine. He was not afraid to show me his passport to prove it either. This guy was at least two thirds of the way off his trolley and after enjoying his initial inquisition, I endured several hours of his telling me that as a writer I was “the weaver”. The elaborate spiels which followed across the froth of many cold pilsners are too esoteric to recount here, suffice to say there were a lot of hand-gestures.
Relief came at around two in the morning when he introduced me to an Australian linguist who was lecturing at the local university and who had been here ten years. He too could not understand why people kept voting for John Howard, even though he was originally from Pymble. We still had no answers when at around four I staggered home and went to sleep to have a long, long dream about my alarm going off.
I woke up drunk just before the dream had a chance to turn into a nightmare and bolted with barely sufficient time to get back to the train station. I made it, thankfully, and took the train out to Altenburg, roughly an hour outside of Leipzig, from where my flight was departing.
– Handy hint, incidentally, if flying with Ryan Air, often two one-way tickets are cheaper than booking a return flight, so it’s a good idea to fly into one place and out another. Just pick a spot nearby on the map…
Right, looks like part two of my Balkans narrative will have to wait…
P.S. – was it just me, or was Roger Federer pointing north immediately after championship point in the Wimbledon final? I think that’s why he went and sat down for a while with his head in his hands before getting up to bask in the applause.